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Music Education and the Brain. That is the title I put on most of my presentations as the simplicity of the title makes it easily understood by teachers, parent groups and school leaders. It is also a title that lends itself well to identifying the ‘transferable’ or ‘non-musical’ benefits of music learning.
But what makes me smile every time I write those words, is that the impact of the fields of neuroscientific and psychology research on the place, purpose and practice of music education in the 21st century is as far away from simple as you can get.
Furthermore, research findings in these fields, often so far removed from the actual experience of music education, could have a profound influence on music education, and that influence has the potential to be both positive and negative.
Music learning on an instrument has been found to improve language acquisition, memory skills, reading skills, inhibition control, focus, attention span, well-being, motor control, analytical thinking, I could just keep listing areas of development.
That is an attractive list for educators and leaders outside music education and if you ask a music educator if they have observed these benefits they would answer “yes, of course”.
However for some reason it feels that whilst they want to support music programs in their schools, some find that the idea that “music is good for children in its own right” is just not enough justification.
So why is it that scientists have looked at all of these areas instead of at music learning itself?
The answer is that they are using music learning as a tool to understand the structures, functions and development of the human brain. Learning more about music learning isn’t the goal, understanding more about human learning is.
However, this deluge of supportive research and the incredible and much quoted list of the non-musical benefits of music learning may also have a less supportive angle because it seems this is an either/or debate. In this debate, music education is either good for music learning or good for other learning but it can’t be both and just where does the value of music education as an art form sit in this new world of scientific justification?
I am passionately fascinated by the science of music learning. As a music educator I find that I do my most powerful and effective educating when I deeply understand both my craft and my students.
When I went looking for a PhD topic I wanted a topic I would be just as enamoured with at the end as I was at the beginning and I found it in the new(ish) field of neuroscience and music learning.
Since then my focus has expanded to include psychology and neuroscience and as I have come to understand what neuroscientists and psychologists were seeing in the brain development of children through music learning, I found that I better understood both my craft and my students. I also found that my practice was supercharged for learning.
I read and research across the field, not deeply into one specific aspect, keeping a few simple touchstones in mind every time I read;
However, the very reason that scientists are using music learning as a tool to understand brain development is because it is so complex, integrated and fundamental to us as humans.
What studying music education and the brain for the last eight years has given me is a new perspective on my craft and my students and my field. Learning music is a right of every child, but in the mixed up times we live in have we lost sight of it?
It is my belief that the scientific research can help us pull all this back into focus. In my experience a conversation that starts from the “music is just good” place never has a chance so I see brain science as a way to restart the conversation about the value of music learning in two ways.
Firstly we should start where non-musical educators are at, with the non-musical benefits that have a measurable economic impact.
Secondly, once that door is open, it is our job to help non-musical educators walk through it to acknowledge the deeper value of music learning to human development and help non-musical educators to understand the value of music education in itself.
I have had the great privilege of visiting neuroscientists and psychologists in their labs all over the world over the last two years. I am quite the oddity in their world, I come from a place far outside their frame of reference most of the time, with the exception that most of them are accomplished amateur musicians.
Naturally, they all have one or more music educators who have been pivotal in their lives, and helped them become the person they are today. Many of them have said that their research is their way of giving back to that pivotal teacher and to our profession.
For me, I want to make the most of their work to improve my own, by breaking down the either/or approach to understanding the effects and benefits of music for its own sake on music education as a whole.
Dr Anita Collins is an award-winning educator, researcher and writer in the field of brain development and music learning. She is internationally recognized for her unique work in translating the scientific research of neuroscientists and psychologists to the everyday parent, teacher and student. Anita has recently returned from interviewing 90+ researchers in labs across the US, Canada, Europe and Australia so she can share the most up to date research with music educators.
Anita is a prolific and eclectic writer, including a children’s book author, opinion columns for The Age and The Conversation, authored papers for a number of international peer-reviewed journals, specialist technical writer for OECD Education Framework 2030 and authored the script for one of the most watched TED Education films ever made, How Playing an Instrument Benefits Your Brain. Anita is a Churchill Fellow and her TEDxCanberra Talk has been viewed over 100,000 times.
Anita is currently writing a short book for expectant and new parents called The Lullaby Effect, based on a highly successful series of podcasts available on iTunes.
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